The Elephants of Mars
Joe Satriani had an admirably productive workingman’s holiday, forced time away from the road that ultimately produced his 18th studio album, The Elephants of Mars, as the final result.
Satriani and his touring band, all recording remotely in separate areas of the world during lockdown, delivered an album length journey that never dulls. The Elephants of Mars crackles with an exciting new energy, briskly traveling through stylistic roads that feel freshly updated, viewed through new eyes.
From the gripping, sci-fi madness of “Through A Mother’s Day Darkly,” to the isolation felt in a decaying urban landscape, as depicted in “Sahara,” to the general endorphin levels that peak as the elephants finally roar in the album’s scintillating title track, “The Elephants of Mars”, which will stampede across your mind, leaving a sonic imprint that doesn’t fade.
Thanks to the pandemic removing all time constraints, The Elephants of Mars truly represents the album that Satriani himself hoped he could deliver with his band. “We did everything. We tried the craziest ideas…and we entertained every notion we had about turning something backwards, upside down, seeing what could happen.”
He strove to openly challenge himself to move away from what he describes as “the classic rock” tone of the past few albums he’s put out, replacing that with “a new platform of his own design. “Okay, I know what everybody else is doing…but, I want to be in this new area,” he explains. “I do want to show people that the instrumental guitar album can contain far more complexity of creative elements than I think people are using right now.”
The band for The Elephants of Mars marries players from Satriani’s universe both past and present. Legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, Smashing Pumpkins) is back for his second consecutive tour of duty with the guitarist following his initial debut on the previous album, Shapeshifting. Bassist Bryan Beller slips inside the liner notes for the first time since 2015’s monster Shockwave Supernova album. Longtime associate Eric Caudieux has been in the Satch orbit since 1998’s Crystal Planet and also produced the album, collaborating on the mixes with Greg Koller (Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce). Rai Thistlethwayte is the newest addition, beaming in from overseas where he was splitting his time between Australia and Tasmania.
While he has worked separately in the past with band members, Satriani often favored the approach of getting everyone in a room and following the spirit of the collaborations that developed. They would take a decidedly different path with The Elephants of Mars. The lockdown dictated an intriguing new direction that was joined by similarly exciting results.
Satriani’s ongoing work on musical cues related to his Crystal Planet comic book series gave birth to the album’s title track, “The Elephants of Mars”. He recalls that his original demo version had a Nine Inch Nails-like beat built around synthesizers and a guitar section he had cut years ago. He was intrigued by one piece which had a sound that to his ears, “sounded like electronic elephants with the air coming through the trunks and everything.”
Pulling in that same guitar part as inspiration, originally recorded on an iPhone, Satriani recorded a fresh take of the guitar line and began to manipulate other parts of the song. “I wrote a section where I could just do a totally open guitar solo and I came up with the idea of using the symmetrical scale,” he recalls. “Just because I thought it was so much fun and it’s so weird, it would fit the meaning of the song.”
Constructing a middle section and ending solo, now it was time to set the elephants free. “The idea was now we really have to turn up those elephants because it really sets up the song,” Satriani begins. “But how do we get that weird synthesizer patch to match Kenny and Bryan and Joe just going crazy? Finally Rai comes in and he does a Deep Purple/Jon Lord organ kind of thing throughout the whole song.”
It was a big vision to pull together and in the end, Satriani says, “We were literally working on sections and crossing our fingers that it was going to work.” Happily, they were able to reach the perfect storm. “‘The Elephants of Mars’ sounds in the beginning finally made sense,” he concludes. “It took a lot of experience and technical work to get all those sound and sonic elements together to work with the rock band and make it sound like you’re on Mars and the elephants are charging and they’re gigantic.”